What do Cristiano Ronaldo, Christian Pulisic, Ansu Fati, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joshua Kimmich all have in common? Other than being some of the biggest names in world football, they have all suffered injuries that have left them either out of, or likely to miss, this week’s international break.
Here we are, two months into the 2020-21 season in early November, and the players are already struggling to keep pace with the incessant workload — according to The Athletic, muscle injuries in the Premier League in the first five weeks of the season were up 42% on the same stage in the previous campaign.
Rather than having to play international games this week, what the players really need is a rest.
Some will get just that, with several Serie A clubs blocking their players from leaving for international duty due to COVID-19 concerns and a worrying outbreak in Denmark raising the prospect of all overseas Danish players being unable to return home without having to enter quarantine.
But for the others, the internationals will go on and the leading players will have to play yet again.
Ronaldo, who limped out of Juventus‘ 1-1 draw with Lazio on Sunday with an ankle injury, may yet report for Portugal‘s triple header against Andorra, France and Croatia, while Pulisic has been named in Gregg Berhalter’s 24-man squad for the United States‘ two games against Wales and Panama, despite the Chelsea forward being sidelined since late October with a hamstring injury.
But Ansu (knee), Alexander-Arnold (calf) and Kimmich (knee) will all be absent when their international teams play this week and there are plenty of others who have suffered injuries in a season that has been congested like never before due to the fixture list being impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
ESPN reported this summer that football’s top players would face an unprecedented test of their endurance this season, with some having no more than two weeks’ rest in a 13-month campaign from June 2020 to July 2021, due to last season not finishing until mid-August and the new one beginning in early September.
Managers have voiced their concerns over the demands being placed on players, who have seen the pre-Christmas fixture schedule packed with two triple-header international breaks and six matchdays in the Champions League and Europa League — all crammed into an eight-week period.
It was always going to heavy-going this season, with the second half of the campaign also seeing busier-than-usual fixture lists. And in England, the two-week winter break introduced last season will not be repeated this term with too many games to squeeze into a short time.
England manager Gareth Southgate was one of the first speak out over the workload — Southgate, after all, may need his players to be fit and firing all through to the delayed Euro 2020 final at Wembley on July 11.
“The calendar is packed and it needs collaboration from everybody to try to resolve that,” Southgate said in September. “It’s easy to try to cram everybody’s desire in, in terms of their own competitions, but the reality is that the best players end up playing in the most matches and we have to try and play our part in terms of navigating that.”
Southgate was right to flag up the problems ahead, but nothing has been done about them and managers are becoming increasingly agitated by the pressure of having to get a team ready to play every three or four days.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used his postmatch news conference after Saturday’s 3-1 win at Everton to complain about his team having to play at 12.30 p.m. GMT on Saturday, having travelled to Turkey to face Istanbul Basaksehir on Wednesday evening.
“The kickoff time set us up to fail,” Solskjaer said. “We have been to Turkey, played loads of games this season already, we got back Thursday morning and we are playing Saturday lunchtime, it’s an absolute shambles. Players this season, in these times, a pandemic, mentally and physically, it’s draining.”
United were victims of the Premier League TV deal, which give BT Sport a Saturday 12.30 p.m. GMT slot. If BT Sport selects United, then the Premier League can do nothing about it, although a change to the rules, preventing teams in action in Europe on Wednesdays from playing in the early Saturday slot, would be a positive step.
Ale Moreno thinks tired legs had a major impact in Manchester City’s 1-1 draw vs. Liverpool.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was equally critical of the fixture list following his team’s 1-1 draw at Manchester City, which resulted in the loss of Alexander-Arnold, with the German making it clear that everybody — clubs and national teams — will suffer.
“Usually in a season we all have an October, November and then a very, very tricky December,” Klopp said. “This year, the October is like the December, the November is like the December and the December is still like the December. This intensity is really difficult. We lost Trent [against City] and I’m pretty sure Gareth Southgate is not fine [with that]. If we continue like this and hopefully we can play a Euros in the summer, if they happen, let’s see who will be part of that, which players.”
The most obvious solution to the overheated fixture schedule would surely have been to shelve the forthcoming international break or, at the very least, reduce the list to just one game.
Sources have told ESPN that, having postponed Euro 2020 this summer, UEFA was determined to stage the Nations League in the opening months of the season for both sporting and financial reasons for the competing nations.
International fixtures, and the finances they generate, are the lifeblood to many associations, especially due to the money earned from broadcasting revenue at a time when crowds are reduced, or prohibited altogether, as a consequence of the pandemic. But while the club managers can stomach losing their players for competitive internationals, it is the friendlies that prompt so much frustration.
The United States, having not played an international fixture since February, can legitimately cite the need to use this break, but it is difficult to see the benefit of Portugal facing Andorra, the team sitting 145th in the FIFA World Ranking, unless it has been set up to help Ronaldo (101) — if fit — close in on Ali Daei’s world record of 109 international goals.
When England arranged a Wembley friendly with New Zealand — ranked 121 by FIFA — for this week, sources told ESPN that it was primarily scheduled to honour a broadcasting deal which required a game to be played. No game would mean breaking the terms of the TV deal and the prospect of having pay back a sum described by sources as “seven figures.”
New Zealand have since pulled out of the fixture due to concerns over COVID-19, but England have filled the gap by securing a friendly with Republic of Ireland, rather than allowing Southgate’s players to have much-needed rest.
With eight months of this season still to play — Euro 2020 and Copa America both run until mid-July — the determination of most major nations to play three internationals in the space of six days in November seems nonsensical. Not to mention there is another treble-header of matches in March when 2022 World Cup qualifying gets underway.
And it points towards more top stars being injured and unavailable when the season reaches its climax, for both club and country.